The Gilbert Islands are also known as Kiribati. Arorae is the last and most remote of thirty-three low-lying islands that make up the republic of Kiribati in the South Pacific. Scientists say that in the next thirty to fifty years, islands like this one will be underwater due to rising sea levels caused by global climate change. So what are people doing here now to prepare for a day when their country no longer exists? One man is building a sea wall to protect his house. While most of his neighbors have moved inland, he’s determined to stay put, but for how long?
One conservative estimate from the University of Colorado predicts that global temperature changes will cause sea levels to rise as much as two meters by the end of this century. For Kiribati one hundred thousand residents who live on narrow strips of land just barely above sea level, it’s a trend that spells disaster, says the country’s president, Anote Tong;
“Already we have whole villages that have been washed out. That the sea is rising, there is no running away from that reality.”
As conditions worsen, Tong says many here, like twenty-three year old fisherman, Rubito, are finding it harder to produce the food they need to survive.
Rubito: It’s getting harder, which is affecting the food we grow. Before, our coconuts were big, but now they’re as small as our fists.
“Having lost our homeland, having lost our cultural identity, I don’t think we want to lose our dignity.”
In what little time they have left, Tong plans to develop some of the islands and give his people the means to leave on their own accord.
Tong says “The idea is to encourage the development of the island. We just need to be able to provide them with the opportunity, the skill, and whatever equipment they need.”
But convincing development organizations to invest in a country that won’t be around in fifty years is not easy. For the first time, the U.N. agency specializing in agricultural development, IFAD has sent a team to assess the situation on Kiribati’s most remote southern island, Arorae.
They have tried to understand some of the challenges that the inhabitants of Arorae face with the environment. One man says, “There’s been a lot of damage to trees. Wells are salty, there is erosion along the coastline. The president of the country is saying that the whole survival of the islands over the next fifty years is in question. The challenge that we face is what happens in the course of these fifty years.
The IFAD team helps islanders develop a plan, one that tackles some of their most immediate problems, like the intrusion of sea water, but also breaks new ground for those living on the front lines of climate change.
An agricultural research center has been set up to help the islanders produce food locally. The aim is to identify food crop varieties able to tolerate rising temperatures and grow in salty water. It’s Tong’s goal to turn islands like Arorae into centers for food production, growing crops that could help feed populations in places where the impact of climate change is advancing much more quickly.
But these are just temporary measures. Tong says the real challenge is to make those countries contributing to climate change take responsibility for its effects;
“This represents the single biggest moral challenge to humankind. And if it doesn’t respond to this, then there is no credibility to anything.”